Dr. Patricia Steinhoff
is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Ever since jetting to Israel in 1972 to interview Okamoto Kozo — the only surviving attacker of the Lod Airport terrorist incident — Dr. Steinhoff has been on a 35-year journey to chronicle the history and social organization of post-war Japanese Marxist radicals, from their earnest beginnings in the mass protests against the Ampo treaty in the late 1950s to their self-destruction and descent into international terrorism in the early 1970s. Although the Extreme Left has ceased to be a significant political force in Japan, the members’ past actions continue to haunt the present. Police boxes still plaster up wanted posters for fugitive Marxists, Japanese Red Army soldiers once active in the Middle East spend their days navigating through the Japanese courts, and ex-Red Army Faction plane hijackers of the Yodo-go incident
remain a sore point in Japan-North Korea relations.
In this five-part interview, we ask Dr. Steinhoff to explain the formation of the student movement in Japan, its radical re-organization into the infamous “Red Armies,” and the general social impact of the New Left upon contemporary Japanese society.
PART 1 – FINDING THE TOPIC
How did you end up researching Japanese student leftism and the Red Army saga?
I was a Japanese specialist before I was a sociologist. I have an undergraduate degree in Japanese language and literature. I was at the University of Michigan, with the Michigan Daily, when it was a center of student protest. My closest associates were very much in the center of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and activism in the early ’60s. So I was very close to that kind of activism, but I was not an activist myself.
When I went to Harvard and wanted to do a dissertation, Robert Lifton had just written a piece about Japanese student radicals — the ’60 Ampo [Japan-U.S. Joint Security Treaty] generation. I had read that, and in it he talked about the students making a tenkō (転向) which he meant as, they went from one organization to another, one ideological position to another. I’m not sure how accurate that description is for the students of that period. In any case, the word tenkō came up.
I was working at that time under Robert Bellah. He asked me what I wanted to do for my dissertation, and I said two things. One was Japanese politeness levels, which I had done some work on and had found sociologically interesting. The other was tenkō. And he knew Lifton and knew the Lifton piece, and he immediately said, “Tenkō! That’s a great topic. But don’t do the post-war, you need to do the real tenkō of the 1920s and 1930s.”
That’s what I did my dissertation on. My initial research in Japan was pre-war, but it was on the most radical elements in pre-war Japan — the members of the Japan Communist Party and the support organizations around them. And it ended up being a dissertation about how they confronted the state and how they were suppressed in their prison situation. The existing Japanese work at that time was all being done as intellectual history (思想史). I’m a sociologist and have a pretty low tolerance for intellectual history (laughs), so my approach was to look at the social context in which this was happening. I looked at the documents — in that period in the ’60s, a lot of classified material from pre-war Japan had come out and it was on the used book market and people were collecting it. There were pre-war, government documents about tenkō and how it had been managed.
When you say “tenkō” in this context, do you mean renunciation of Marxist beliefs?
The pre-war situation was that they arrested a lot of people under the Peace Preservation Law, that it’s against the law to carry out actions that have the purpose of changing the kokutai (國體, national polity) or the economic structure. So the logic is that it’s an action, but the crime really depends on what your beliefs are. What happened in this situation was, the criminal justice system was not content with prosecuting people for actions: they wanted them to give up the beliefs. Otherwise the crime is continuing, right? So tenkō became about pressure to give up your ideas.
A whole system was developed for getting people to make a tenkō and then using the confession/tenkō statements made by leaders to get other people to do it. It became a kind of mass movement. In the ’30s, it spread out to many other groups that had been caught under the Peace Preservation Law, well beyond the Communist Party. And also, it put pressure on many people long before they were ever arrested. When the Konoe government created the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (大政翼賛会) in 1940, they put pressure on all the mass organizations to become part of it, under state control. In that process, they pressured organizations to make an organizational statement that was basically a loyalty oath or a tenkō
I was interested in the whole process of tenkō, the logic of it, how the prosecutors tried to make it happen, and how people responded to it. So I tried to understand how people dealt with that pressure.
The research was actually being done in Tokyo in 1966 up to the beginning of 1968. Things were heating up in the student movement but I had my nose in the books and was not paying attention to what was going on around me.
So after the dissertation I turned to what I originally wanted to do which was look at post-war tenkō. I wanted to find a post-war situation that had some of the same elements, and my idea was the post-war constitution gave people a lot more protection in the legal system, and the post-war education system was trying to produce stronger individuals. So a lot of the thrust of the occupation should have created different social conditions in which people could resist that type of pressure if it fell on them again. I was looking around for a similar post-war situation in which people because of ideological commitment got themselves in a direct confrontation with the state and were under pressure to stop doing what they were doing.
So I was looking around, and I was aware that another social movement was going on, but I didn’t know what was happening in much detail.
Then in 1972, the Red Army people who were in the Middle East carried out the airport attack in Israel.